Federal Judge Dismisses Boise Homeless Camping Ordinance Lawsuit 

click to enlarge - The encampment of homeless people under the I-84 Connector near Rhodes Skate Park, where Rusty Bitton, 37, was found murdered in October 2014. -  - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • The encampment of homeless people under the I-84 Connector near Rhodes Skate Park, where Rusty Bitton, 37, was found murdered in October 2014.

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit over the city of Boise's controversial camping ordinance Tuesday morning.

In Bell v. City of Boise, filed in 2009, the plaintiffs alleged that city ordinances prohibiting public camping violated their constitutional rights, but Sept. 29, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush ruled dismissed the case on the grounds that the plaintiffs had insufficient standing in the case, writing there was "no known citation of a homeless individual under the Ordinances for camping or sleeping on public property on any night or morning when he or she was unable to secure shelter due to a lack of shelter capacity."

Bush went on to write, however, "This Court on remand also does not reach the underlying merits of the Plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment claims," and that those claims "could have" been addressed, leaving the door open for future challenges to the Eighth Amendment constitutionality of the city's camping ordinances.  

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter responded to the ruling case's dismissal in a Tuesday afternoon press release, writing, "We agree with and are very pleased by the court's decision to dismiss this lawsuit. Our efforts on behalf of those in our community who are experiencing homelessness are concrete. Now, with this case behind us, we will be able to better focus on creating positive gains against this challenging societal problem."

The lawsuit drew the attention of cities and other governmental entities across the country, including the Department of Justice, which described the city's ordinances as "poor public policy." They also drew criticism from ACLU-Idaho and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

"The Department of Justice's filing put the eyes of the country on Boise," said NLCHP senior attorney Eric Tars. "There's a very clear push against criminalizing homelessness."

Aug. 20, attorneys for the city and the plaintiffs stood before Bush to defend and challenge the ordinances, with attorney Brady Hall of Boise-based More & Elia Law Firm telling the court the ordinances kept Boise cleaner and safer.

"There are significant health and safety risks [related to public camping]," he said. "There are some unfortunate health and sanitation issues."

But that afternoon's court proceedings hinged on the number of available beds at Boise area shelters, and whether the River of Life shelter, a faith-based organization, had been forthright about its number of available beds.

Bush's ruling judgment indicates he was swayed by the city's argument that the city's policy of not enforcing its camping ordinances while area shelters were at capacity meant the plaintiffs were unable to prove harm done to them by the ordinances because they violated those ordinances by choice rather than necessity.

Homelessness continues to be a contentious issue in Boise, where an encampment has grown in Cooper Court to the extent that it has blocked essential services to the nearby Interfaith Sanctuary. In its press release in the wake of Bush's ruling, it touted the city's Pay for Success program, in which philanthropies and donors foot the bill for programs with measurable goals designed to address the issue, and are reimbursed when they prove the success of their programs. The program came from the University of Utah's Policy Innovation Lab.

"This is definitely a new way of doing business, but we think it's exciting," said Boise City Director of Community Partnerships Diana Lachiondo when Boise Weekly first wrote about the program in May.

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